Thursday, 24 April 2014

Wave of meditation: Pondering the peculiar punk-pop perfection of The Pixies

This was written for a recent REWIND column in the South China Morning Post, a look back at the seminal surrealist masterpiece Doolittle by The Pixies - which is now being toured and performed in its entirety by the reformed magical realists of rock and roll. An excellent trend, in my opinion, encouraging musical artists to stick with the musical longform of the album with a view to producing a classic which one day might be taken on the road to celebrate - and to cash in. 

Forget whatever you've read lately of the superannuated stumblings of The Pixies. Leave aside the phoned-in performances, the tawdry sackings of Kim Deal clones, the increasingly pudgy petulance, songwriting flabbiness and sonic flatulence of Black Francis/Frank Black, aka Charles Thompson, indie rock's poet laureate of LOUDsoftLOUD weirdness.

All ye know on earth and all ye need to know is that The Pixies produced four of the best, truest and most beautiful records ever made in little more than as many years; a short sharp spurt of genius that places them in the pantheon, demigods who will dwell forever upon the upper slopes of the Olympus Mons and Mount Shasta and in the deepest reaches of the ocean's abysses. If Frank Black wants to spend the rest of his years recording an Indie Cindy a week while eating cheeseburgers two-handed and going Donald Trump on a conga line of bassists, it matters not, for rock's greatest quadrilogy remains unassailable.

To wit: the chaotic jagged jangle and shimmer of Surfer Rosa, a gigantic record that poked broken guitar strings through the coke-bloated heart of cock rock from way out in the water in 1988; Doolittle, the groundswell set off by Surfer Rosa's splashing about in strange seas that was released less than a year later, making a lie of its name, the cheeky numerate simian on the sleeve hinting at the oddapalooza of arcane subject matter and unfettered monkey business within; the velour velocity, pure ferocity and high gloss sheen of Bossanova, and finally, the sad aliens, lonely bird dreams and towering pipe dreams of Trompe Le Monde.

Doolittle is first among equals, the Wave of Mutilation (track three, which by its first line has referenced Charles Manson and the Beach boys before delving into Californian mysticism and weather phenomena) which swept all before it and left a gasping tidewrack of imitators, homage payers, plagiarists, envious lesser talents and sniping critics in its wake. It is the most picked over, pecked and dissected corpse on rock's slab, borrowed by talent, stolen by genius, feted by the cognoscenti and elevated by the Illuminati ('No Doolittle, no Nevermind' Kurt Cobain once said).

Doolittle is nothing less than a musical tsunami, one that took time to build but whose grace notes and nuances and ambitions and originality of vision refract and wash up in the strangest and most unlikely places. One minute whispering death, a surge of unimaginable depth and power pulsing through one's being, the next as loud as hell, a ringing bell, warning siren and churning maelstrom that makes your heart sing, your lungs burst and your ears bleed.

From the moment Black Francis wails about slicing up eyeballs on Debaser, the opening homage to Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, he sets out his surreal stall and sets the controls for the heart of some black hole sun, a dark fluid place where crustaceans dine on rotting flesh and vampires feed amidst biblical violence and apocalyptic imagery, torture porn and tattooed tits, divinity and death, a world summoned in screams and gulps and croons juxtaposed with the shimmering strings and double-tracked polish of Gil Norton's production.

Perfect two-minute nuggets of LOUDsoft shape-shifting splendour unravel with the light and sound and fury of some sea monster striking a lure and making a run for the Mariana trench. Deeper and sweeter and darker it spirals, from the uneasy peachy keenness of Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You and Monkey's Gone to Heaven, breakneck bonesetters like Crackity Jones and Tame, which along with Mr Grieves, Dead and Gouge Away go big on biblical themes and surrealist memes.

The weirdo lyrics always reward investigation: Dead's repeated shriek of 'Uriah hit the crapper' I took to be some dig at Uriah Heep until realising the entire song was written as King David vocalising his lust for that crazy biblical babe Bathsheba, who he saw bathing, sending her husband away to be killed at war so he could have his way with her.

Doolittle was originally intended to be called Whore, as in the great biblical Whore of Babylon. Black acquiesced in the face of record label pressure. That which we call Surfer Rosa by any other name would sound as sweet; any way you slice or gouge it, Doolittle remains a revelation.